By Paul Kiefer
King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht announced on Friday that she has fired the detective who made a half-dozen Facebook posts making light of violence against Black Lives Matter protesters. In a press release on Friday morning, Johanknecht explained that her decision to fire Detective Michael Brown was based on both the “extreme indifference to life and racial equity” evident in the posts and the damage they incurred to the public’s “confidence and trust” in the sheriff’s office. Brown’s termination went into effect on Thursday.
The Facebook posts, which Brown shared in June and July of 2020, included a joke about Lorenzo Anderson, the 19-year-old killed near Capitol Hill’s CHOP zone on June 20, and two jokes about driving cars into crowds of protesters. Those included a picture of a sticker that reads “All Lives Splatter,” and a subsequent comment on the image that read, “I see a couple of people got infected with Covid-19 from the hood of a car on 1-5 last night”—a reference to the July 4 hit-and-run in which a driver struck two Black Lives Matter marchers on I-5, killing one and permanently injuring another. Brown shared both jokes within hours of the hit-and-run.
In other posts, Brown appeared to celebrate or encourage the use of excessive force by police when responding to protests. In a post on June 1, for instance, Brown posted a video of a Baltimore police officer punching a Black woman at a protest in May with the comment, “When in doubt… knock ’em out.”
Brown—a cousin of Washington Governor Jay Inslee—had worked for the sheriff’s office for 40 years, and was on the detail that provides security to King County Executive Dow Constantine. His disciplinary record included a one-day suspension in 2013 for a drunken hit-and-run in Chelan County.
In early July, after receiving a flood of civilian complaints about Detective Michael Brown’s posts, the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) began an investigation into Brown’s comments; according to KCSO spokesman Tim Meyer, the sheriff’s office placed Brown on paid administrative leave for the duration of the investigation.
In October, after reviewing complaints sent to the KCSO and other county agencies, King County Undersheriff Patti Cole-Tindall—the department’s second-in-command—recommended that Johanknecht fire Brown. In her disciplinary recommendation, Cole-Tindall contended that Brown’s misconduct had compromised his ability to effectively work in law enforcement.
Brown met with Johanknecht in early November to provide his perspective on his conduct and the proposal to fire him from the department. In that hearing, Brown said he did not intend his posts to encourage violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, though he told Johanknecht that he “regretted” the posts because “others might perceive them in an entirely different light.” In a letter Johanknecht sent to Brown after the hearing, she wrote that his presentation to defend himself “was brief and fell short of accepting responsibility, or demonstrating that [he] understood what was wrong with [his] conduct.”
In the same letter, Johanknecht wrote that Brown’s posts ranged from encouraging illegal use of force to blaming protesters for attacks targeting them; Johanknecht also called out Brown for claiming to be unaware of the connection between the phrases “All Lives Splatter” and “Black Lives Matter,” writing that the “play on the phrases” was too obvious for Brown to miss.
Johanknecht sustained allegations that Brown had committed “conduct unbecoming” of an officer—a charge that entails diminishing “respect for” or “confidence in” the department. However, she did not uphold an allegation that Brown’s posts violated sheriff’s office policies prohibiting “discrimination, harassment, incivility and bigotry” because he shared the posts while off-duty; the policy only applies to on-duty conduct.
Notably, Johanknecht that her decision to fire him was influenced by the public outcry sparked by his posts. “The volume of complaints concerning your series of posts,” she wrote in her letter to Brown, “caused a significant slowdown in the work of the Internal Investigations Unit,” which reviews and documents misconduct complaints.
Johanknecht drew a parallel between Brown’s case and the case of a KCSO captain who recently received a one-day suspension for “posting a widely circulating video of a gang of black people attacking and robbing a 15-year old black girl stealing the shoes off” that the captain captioned, “Animals. This is what the inner city gives us these days.” Her decision not to discipline that captain more harshly, Johanknecht wrote, was “because there was not the outrage and extremely harmful, negative and damaging effect to the Sheriffs Office that [Brown’s] posts and comments created locally and nationwide.”
The sheriff’s office is still investigating other officers who interacted with Brown’s Facebook posts.